Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The child who paid her respects

Tammy on her bus.
FLOMATON, Ala. — The rain had not yet begun to fall, but low clouds crossed air currents above the hillside, curling around one another, gray on gray, and threatening a downpour.

We stood beside a freshly covered grave. Colorful flower arrangements lay spread on the upturned clay or stood in pots where a headstone was yet to be placed. A train passed down the hill, heading east, its mournful wail echoing among the pines and dogwoods.

At the head of the flower grouping lay a school bus formed of yellow silk buds. Near the foot, several popsicle sticks jutted from a clutch of cut flowers, decorated with figures named for some of the children who rode her bus. She drove for the Escambia County, Fla., School District for more than 15 years.

Tammy, my wife’s older sister, died Sept. 12 of complications after more than a year of treatment for leukemia, first at Baptist Hospital in Pensacola and later at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. She left two sisters, a husband and four daughters, her mother, grandchildren, cousins — and countless others — to mourn.

She was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, but an anonymous donor on the national registry was a perfect match for stem cell transplant. Thanks to that donor, her most recent biopsy showed she was 100-percent cancer-free. Tammy was looking forward to leaving the hospital soon and coming for a visit so she could dip her toes in the Gulf of Mexico on an autumn afternoon. She hoped to recover well enough to return to work someday.

Our photo albums are filled with her visits. A joint anniversary cruise on the Lady Anderson. Camping trips to St. Andrews State Park. Family portraits at the foot of the dunes and in the surf along Panama City Beach. Running the Gran Maze at Coconut Creek, miniature golfing, go-cart racing, shooting the rapids at Shipwreck Island. Most recently, a vow renewal ceremony for Tammy and her husband, Robby, at sunset on the beach.

As we stood there on the hill under threatening clouds — a small group having gathered a few hours after the services and now lost in our own thoughts — a beat-up Ford Explorer pulled over along the cemetery lane. A skinny girl in flip-flops and a black skirt climbed down from behind the wheel and crossed the lawn to join us. We didn’t know her, but she knew Tammy.

“I rode her bus when I was in third grade,” the girl explained. “If I was still in school, I’d be a senior this year. I heard this morning about what had happened, but I didn’t have any way to go to the funeral. I had to wait for my dad to get home from work so I could take his truck.”

She stood, hands folded together, studying the flowers and engulfed in memory, and I wondered how many others like her there were in the world. Children who rode a school bus —  perhaps only for a short time, many years ago — who will carry a piece of their driver’s spirit with them into the future. How many others might there have been if things had gone differently?

I wondered what Tammy had done to impress this one child, to move her nine years later to pay respects on a lonely hilltop as rain began to fall. But I didn’t ask. My curiosity didn’t matter, really.

The children mattered, and this girl’s quiet visitation was testament to how well Tammy saw to them in her time.

Leukemia Awareness
What: September is National Leukemia and Lymphoma Awareness Month
Who: More than 1 million people in the United States are diagnosed with cancer each year

Friday, September 12, 2014

Come see me at Creative Con tomorrow!

What: A gathering of writers, artists, actors, publishers, dancers, musicians and other fantastic creators to meet the public and share their talents
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13
Where: Gulf Coast State College, Student Union East Building, Panama City
Cost: $10 for adults, free to children age 6 and younger

Creative Con grows into new venue
Guests include ‘Pluggers’ artist, actors, musicians, more

PANAMA CITY — Having outgrown its original home, Panama City Creative Con shows no signs of slowing down.

This year’s Creative Con showroom will be on the second floor of the Student Union East building at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City. The show floor will be in the main lecture hall with a kids’ art program and guest panels located in two adjacent classrooms.

Creative Con is a day celebrating sequential art, comics, costumes (or “cosplay”), writing, publishing — and tons of other creative endeavors, such as dancing, filmmaking, music and more. Originally housed in the children’s department of the Bay County Public Library, and supported by the Library Foundation, massive attendance last year convinced organizers Jayson Kretzer and Bettina Mead to seek a roomier location.

“The new venue allows the opportunity to showcase more creative guests as well as expand the activities we can have the day of the show, such as live acoustic music in our singer/songwriter series, movie screenings, food on site and more,” said Kretzer, a comic artist, writer and graphic designer.

More than 50 guests are scheduled, representing a wide variety of creative and artistic careers. Special guests are Gary Brookins, cartoonist for the “Pluggers” and “Shoe” comic strips, and Jeff Parker, the award winning co-creator of the daily comic strip, “Dustin.”

“This show is not just another comic convention — it’s a creative career path convention,” Kretzer said. “We have a lot of guests this year who grew up or went to school in Bay County and have gone on to find work in the creative career of their choice, such as Gary Brookins and Michael Pedro (who worked on concept art for the video games ‘Halo 4’ and ‘DCU Online’), so I’m pretty excited to have the opportunity to bring them back to Panama City to share their experiences with our up-and-coming creatives.”

Other guests include:

  • Artists Josh Hughes (“Atomic Terrier”), John Russo, Amanda Rachels, Victor Strickland, Mark Maddox, Katie Bracewell, Nathan Smith, Matthew Shelley, K. Michael Russell (“Hack/Slash,” “Justice League”), Clint Hagler, Aaron Hazouri, Brett Brooks (“Dust Bunny”), Randolph Dixon (“Absentee”),  Edmund Dansart and John Holland.
  • Writers Chris Arrant, Mark Boss (“One Bullet”), Bobby Nash, Evelyn Rainey, Shaun Phelps, Michael Lowe (LETO-1), Erica Heflin, Chris Widdop (“Velcro: The Ninja Cat”), Wes Locher, Kevin Laporte, poet and professor Lynn Wallace, and this writer (“Tales of the Awakening Dead” and others).
  • Cosplayers Alice Infinity, Lozziepop Cosplay, Emerald Coast Cosplay, Mandalorian Mercs Costume Club, and Jo Roberts.
  • Actors Dawn Buvurger (“Cremain”), Savana Jade Wehunt (“The Walking Dead”), and Daniel Emery Taylor (“The Return of Swamp Thing”).
  • Publishers Martinez/Butler, Inverse Press, and Graphic Knowledge Magazine (

Other guests are educator Kat Kan, stuntman Jim O’Rear, podcaster Deadpool Speaks, rock band Rogues Gallery, toymaker Roderick Hall, humorist Teresa Roberts Logan, ghost hunters Panhandle Paranormal Investigations, videographer Lou Columbus, and dancers from Blues and Lindy in the Panhandle.

A children’s activity booth will open at 11 a.m. The costume contest will be at 1 p.m., with three age divisions: Junior (ages 12 and younger), General (ages 13 and older), and Group (two or more people, all ages).

Other events include:
  • Two cosplay panels with tips and advice on makeup, custom creating costumes, places to shop for materials, and how to make props.
  • Making Comics, the Inverse Press experience using crowd funding to market independent comics.
  • Comics to Screen, a panel discussion with Wallace, Arrant and Columbus
  • Movie screening of “Fat Chance,” directed by guests O’Rear and Taylor, will show at 2 p.m. in the Theater Room (anyone under the age of 18 must have parental guidance due to some mature subject matter).

A full schedule is available at

Kretzer said he has been intrigued by art since he received his first comic book as a pre-teen. However, growing up in the Panhandle, he never had an opportunity to meet professional artists and illustrators or learn about these types of career paths.

“Finally at age 25, I was able to go to a comic convention,” Kretzer said. “I met many industry professionals face-to-face who helped put me on the right track for my career.”

For 15 years, he has worked from home doing freelance illustration, graphic arts and website design. His work also includes sketch cards created for Marvel and Cartoon Network licensed products, and two self-published books. He often teaches or speaks in local schools and other venues, which gave him chances to share information with younger students.

But he hopes to go further with Creative Con by inspiring young artists the way he was inspired.

“The goal of Creative Con is three-fold,” Kretzer said. “To give young people in our area access to mentors in the field they are interested in; to show K-12 students educational opportunities in our area that will help them fulfill their dreams; and, to provide children with the tools they need to succeed staying right here.” 

Today, comic book movies are on the big screen, which Kretzer hopes will encourage use of graphic novels in the classroom as a learning tool and bring about a renewed interest in sequential art. There is a push from STEM to STEAM education, adding the “A” for arts back into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum.

Creative Con attendees can participate in career discussions in the fields of game development, costume design, sequential art, songwriting, creative writing and more. GCSC will share information about course offerings like the new Digital Media bachelors degree, and Haney Technical Center representatives will address their Digital Design program.

“Art spurs innovation and growth within children of all ages,” said Kretzer, who identified himself as a visual learner. “Art and design are an integral part of many new-age jobs.” 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Local author saves a place for readers

PANAMA CITY — Olivia DeBelle Byrd is a storyteller, part of a Southern tradition that begins with tales of family told and retold at gatherings, and continues with made-up tales that are at least partly true. Sometimes, both sorts of stories happen all at once.

Olivia’s first book, “Miss Hildreth Wore Brown,” was a collection of family anecdotes and essays. It won the Silver Medal in the 2011 Florida Publishers Association President’s Book Awards.

“I was  raised by a Southern father and grandmother of uncommon wit,” Olivia said, discussing the book. “The fabric of my childhood was laced with humor. I have loved the art of storytelling as long as I can remember, so when I was encouraged to write these stories down they poured forth as though an age-old tap had been discovered and turned on.”

Her second book, a novel called “Save My Place,” is being published this month by Mercer University Press. It’s the story of Elisabeth Sterling, a young woman growing up in the South during the turbulent 1960s, and the evolution of a marriage as she meets, weds and maintains a relationship with her beloved Kincaid Patterson.

“It is set in the 1960s and ’70s as that was my ‘coming of age’ — high school, college, marriage, children,” Olivia said. “I have wonderful memories of those days and it was a lot of fun to write about it. Baby boomers will relate to the pop culture of movies, music, books, TV shows, the way we dressed, the difference in social and sexual mores.

Olivia DeBelle Byrd
Olivia, better known locally by her married name “Cooley,” is a third-generation Panama City native with a penchant for turning ordinary happenings into compelling tales. She will celebrate the new novel’s release in the coming weeks with a series of events (see the accompanying info box for details).

Crucial to “Save My Place” is “a passionate and unconditional love” between Elisabeth and Kincaid that has to confront a painful past, heart-searing separation and the greatest of all tragedies, but the biggest obstacle is the loss of faith that threatens to undermine all that they have.

It isn’t all gloom, though. Upon meeting Elisabeth, Kincaid exclaims, “You strike me as a very entertaining person.” And it is that ability to find humor and joy amid sorrows, such as Kincaid’s deployment to fight in the Vietnam War, that carries them — and the reader — through seemingly unbearable situations.

“The Vietnam War was a very impressionable and pivotal time for my generation,” Olivia said. “I was in college during the middle of the war when the U.S. had the highest number of troops deployed. A lottery was held for the draft in December 1969, several years before the draft ended in 1973. That made an impression on me.”

Elisabeth is a realist. She would prefer to abide in Peter Pan’s Neverland and has a “magic door inside ... that kept all the ills of the world at bay,” but that door comes ajar when their child is diagnosed with leukemia.

“Elisabeth grew up in very similar circumstances as I did, so many of her experiences are similar to mine growing up,” Olivia said. “One of the main story lines was inspired by a friend of mine who went through a very similar experience and shared it with me in a beautiful way.”

‘Save My Place’ Events
  • Book signing 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Sept. 13, at The Hidden Lantern bookstore, 84 N. Barrett Square in Rosemary Beach; (850) 231-0091
  • Official book launch reception 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 16, at the Visual Arts Center of Northwest Florida19 E. Fourth St. in Panama City; 769-4451
  • Luncheon and inspirational talk 10:30 a.m. Oct. 7, at First United Methodist Church Community Life Center903 E. Fourth St. in Panama City; tickets are $15 and may be reserved by calling 763-6537
  • Details:


Friday, September 05, 2014

She’s got skin in this game

Nicole Desiree Hays/Game Show Network
One of the contestants on this season of the Game Show Network’s reality competition series “Skin Wars” counts Panama City as her “second home,” and credits Gulf Coast State College’s theater program for encouraging and supporting her love of performance art.

Nicole Desiree Hays, 30, now lives outside of Tampa and runs her own business, CirqueVille Entertainment, which provides everything from simple face-painting for birthday parties to stilt-walking balloon artists, fire-twirlers, human statues, burlesque acrobatics and more.

“It’s kind of hard, and you have to be versatile, for sure,” Nicole said by telephone Wednesday afternoon. “I’m just happy to be able to create and make a living doing what I love to do.”

Nicole, who I met some years ago when she was in theater productions with my son at Gulf Coast, got into body-painting after modeling for local artist Amanda Stiffler. “She showed me everything about body-painting,” Nicole said. “She became a real mentor to me.”

Two years ago, while pursuing her master’s degree in entrepreneurship, Nicole took a class in body-painting, and that teacher recommended her to a producer for “Skin Wars.” The producer talked to her about the show more than a year and a half ago, and Nicole was called to an audition several months later. Of about 25 who auditioned, 10 were brought to Los Angeles for the February 2014 shoot.

“The cast was awesome,” she said. “We took care of each other, really had each other’s backs. Yes, we were in competition, but everybody grew really close.”

The producers wouldn’t let contestants keep art supplies in the shared house, so they couldn’t work on concepts they might try to use on the show. Nicole said the housemates found a unique way of getting around that prohibition.

“Artists draw all the time, no matter what,” she said. “They took away our supplies, so we used condiments in the kitchen to do art on pots and pans.”

“Skin Wars” is hosted by actress and model Rebecca Romijn, who knows something about body-painting from her time portraying the mutant Mystique in the “X-Men” movie franchise. Romijn was also the first model to be body-painted for Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue.

“I adore her,” Nicole said of Romijn. “She’s the most down-to-earth person, and she complimented my outfit one episode. I couldn’t believe it.”

One of the judges is RuPaul Charles, who shot to fame as a drag performer and also hosts “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Although the contestants are not allowed to talk with the celebrities at length, Nicole said, RuPaul kept the experience lively with his quick wit and energy.

Nicole couldn’t talk at length about the elimination aspect of the show, which is halfway through the current season, but she bragged on the talents of her castmates. Each episode, the contestants receive a challenge and limited time to complete it, then one is eliminated by a panel of judges. The finale will feature three finalists competing for a cash prize and a career-launching opportunity.

Nicole said her greatest challenge in an episode that has been broadcast was when she was tasked to create a new superhero in only a few hours. The guest judge for the episode was Lynda Carter, who portrayed Wonder Woman in the 1970s TV series.

“I thought I had a really great story behind mine,” Nicole said, as the design incorporated an item that her grandmother gave her, “but they weren’t able to use the backstories. I guess there wasn’t time to tell everyone’s story. I did a full glitter bodysuit, but really shot myself in the foot. That was the first time I was in the bottom three, which was terrifying.”

Originally from Van Buren, Ark., Nicole describes herself as “the black sheep” of her family of conservative dentists and doctors, in part because she chose the Bohemian lifestyle of an artist. She first came to Panama City on a college Spring Break trip and decided to stay.

“I called home and said, ‘Send my stuff,’” she recalled. “I felt like an orphan. But I met so many amazing families, and Gulf Coast was such a great start for me.”



What: Elimination competition between body-painters
When: Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Game Show Network (repeats throughout the week)